Sherry Turkle, has been an ethnographer of our technological world for three decades, hosted all the while at one of its epicenters: MIT. A professor of the social studies of science and technology there, she also heads up its Initiative on Technology and Self. Her new book, Alone Together, completes a trilogy of investigations into the ways humans interact with technology. It can be, at times, a grim read. Fast Company spoke recently with Turkle about connecting, solitude, and how that compulsion to always have your BlackBerry on might actually be hurting your company’s bottom line.
I didn’t realize MIT hired Luddites.
Well, I’m no Luddite. I think this book is not the book of a Luddite. This is the book of someone deeply appreciative of technology, who took her time to see how our use of this technology unfolded, and who thinks like with any technology, it’s had some effects, good and bad. Every technology becomes our partner, because we make it, and then it makes and shapes us in return, and it takes a little time for us to see how that process of mutual unfolding goes. Every technology gives us the opportunity to say, Is this technology serving our human values? And if not, the opportunity to make corrections. This book is meant to be part a conversation to make corrections. I think there are ways in which we’re constantly communicating and yet not making enough good connections, in a way that’s to our detriment, to the detriment of our families and to our business organizations.
You conducted a lot of fieldwork and clinical interviews to write this book. Who did you talk to?
I interviewed lawyers, architects, management consultants, and businessmen. They talk about the volume and the velocity [of communications]. They’re never off; the communication is constant; and they talk in terms of 500, 1,000, 1,500 [emails per day]. It’s more life than they can even read, and they say things like, “I can’t even keep up with my life.” When you have that kind of volume and velocity, you start to notice that people ask you questions expecting a quick answer, and you start to ask questions that you can give a quick answer to. The questions can get dumbed down so that the answers will be quick. We’re not necessarily putting our investment in the ties that bind; we’re putting our investment in the ties that preoccupy.
What advice do you have for businesses who increasingly use this technology–smart phones, social networks, and the like?
What businesses need to do is remember that these technologies are precious. My book doesn’t put these technologies down. It puts these technologies in their place. You need to put a fast deal in Abu Dhabi? There’s nothing better, and nothing in my book suggests this technology should not be used widely and deeply to solve such problems. What I’m against is a kind of technological promiscuity, where that technology, so perfect in that [Abu Dhabi] circumstance, is the technology you think is perfect for people to bring into a board meeting, when they need to be working on a problem together. In that case it’s not the technology of choice. They’re not physically present with the people they need to bond with and deeply connect with, and need to make very consequential decisions with. I hate the metaphor of addiction: it implies we have to get it away, give it away, wean off. This is great stuff. It’s not heroin. It’s just something we need to learn to use when most appropriate, powerful, and in our best interest.
So I don’t need to throw away my iPhone?
Absolutely not! It’s a precious technology, when used in accordance with your social, professional, and personal values.
If you get into these email, Facebook thumbs-up/thumbs-down settings, a paradoxical thing happens: even though you’re alone, you get into this situation where you’re continually looking for your next message, and to have a sense of approval and validation. You’re alone but looking for approval as though you were together–the little red light going off on the BlackBerry to see if you have somebody’s validation. I make a statement in the book, that if you don’t learn how to be alone, you’ll always be lonely, that loneliness is failed solitude. We’re raising a generation that has grown up with constant connection, and only knows how to be lonely when not connected. This capacity for generative solitude is very important for the creative process, but if you grow up thinking it’s your right and due to be tweeted and retweeted, to have thumbs up on Facebook…we’re losing a capacity for autonomy both intellectual and emotional.
You only mention Twitter a few times in the book. What are your thoughts on Twitter?
I think it’s an interesting notion that sharing becomes part of actually having the thought. It’s not “I think therefore I am,” it’s, “I share therefore I am.” Sharing as you’re thinking opens you up to whether the group likes what you’re thinking as becoming a very big factor in whether or not you think you’re thinking well. Is Twitter fun, is it interesting to hear the aperçus of people? Of course! I certainly don’t have an anti-Twitter position. It’s just not everything.
You write in your book that we today seem to view authenticity with the same skittishness that the Victorians viewed sex.
For some purpose, simulation is just as good as a real. Kids call it being “alive enough.” Making an airline reservation? Simulation is as good as the real. Playing chess? Maybe, maybe not. It can beat you, but do you care? Many people are building robot companions; David Levy argues that robots will be intimate companions. Where we are now, I call it the “robotic moment,” not because we have robots, but because we’re being philosophically prepared to have them. I’m very haunted by these children who talk about simulation as “alive enough.” We’re encouraged to live more and more of our lives in simulation.
You mention how when people see the little red light on their BlackBerry, indicating a message has arrived, they feel utterly compelled to grab it. Do you personally experience that compulsion?
I recognize it with my email. Somebody said of email, “It’s the place for hope in life.” It reminds me of how in Jane Austen, carriages are always coming, you’re waiting, it could be Mr. Bingley’s invitation to a ball. There’s some sense that the post is always arriving in Jane Austen. There’s something about email that carries the sense that that’s where the good news will come. I did a hysterical interview with an accountant about why he felt so strongly about his texts. He said he might get a Genius award! I said, “I don’t think they give those to accountants.” And he said, “But you know what I mean.” He was trying to express that anything could happen on email. Anything could happen! I try to figure out what it is that this little red light means to people. I think it’s that place for hope and change and the new, and what can be different, and how things can be what they’re not now. And I think we all want that.
[Author photo: Peter Urban]